From the moment the ball left Matt Cassel’s hand, Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen could tell he was in trouble.
This was Saturday, the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 30-12 preseason loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and Sorensen — an undrafted rookie safety out of Brigham Young — was playing with the Chiefs’ first-team defense for the third straight game.
But as the ball flew, Minnesota speedster Cordarrelle Patterson broke upfield — instead of toward the corner, as Sorensen had presumed. That’s all it takes to give up six points in the National Football League.
“Bad eyes, bad angles,” Sorensen said. “Yeah, he got up on me quick.”
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Sorensen’s ability to turn the page — a certain form of mental toughness — is one of the biggest reasons the 6-foot-2, 208-pounder has maintained his starting spot for three games while Eric Berry has been out because of a heel injury, a positive sign about Sorensen’s chances to make the 53-man roster when final cuts come down Saturday.
“That’s one of the things I liked about Daniel,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He takes coaching. ... It might not be the way we want him to, (but) he can learn from (mistakes) and move on.”
It was the second time in the preseason that Sorensen had been beaten for a big play. In the preseason opener against Cincinnati, star Bengals receiver A.J. Green caught a 53-yard pass in part because Sorensen didn’t get enough depth before the snap.
“That’s kind of like, ‘Welcome to the NFL, this isn’t college anymore,’” Sorensen said.
At least two people in the stands Saturday knew how Sorensen would react when he gave up the big play to Patterson. From their seats in the club level, Kory and Roxann Sorensen kept their eyes glued on their son.
They knew, better than anybody, that beneath that quick grin and those boyish All-American looks, there lies a competitor. A fighter.
Growing up the youngest of five boys, almost all of whom are bigger, tends to instill that in you.
“If he’d lose a game in his backyard playing basketball or any sport, instead of going in the house and crying about it, he’d want to play again,” Kory Sorensen said. “He’s always been that way.”
All four of Sorensen’s older brothers — Trevan (35), Cody (33), Bryan (29) and Brad (26) — were multisport athletes who played college football. Their sister, Emily (32), also played two sports in high school.
“The kids always joked that every year for Christmas, they’d get some type of a ball, either a basketball, football or soccer ball, sometimes more than one,” Kory said.
Indeed, the patriarch of the Sorensen clan cut an imposing figure at 6 feet 4, and, as a former three-sport athlete who played college basketball, he set the tone.
“He coached us growing up as kids, all the way through high school,” Daniel said. “He was known for his heavy elbows. We played church basketball a lot together, and nobody wanted to mess with my dad.”
It was in this environment that Daniel learned what it truly meant to compete, and how much it hurt to lose. And as the runt of the pack — all his brothers grew to be at least 6 feet 2 and all but one played football at more than 230 pounds — Daniel lost a lot, early on.
“You just get to a point where you’re sick of getting beat up on, you’re sick of losing, you can’t score on the court, you keep getting boxed out and shoved around. So I had to learn to fight back,” Daniel said. “They keep pushing you down.
“I was the one that would get really mad because physically, I couldn’t keep up with them. So I’d have to do anything — push, shove, start throwing things. I had a little bit of a temper, and my parents talked about it maybe being an issue. But my dad thought, ‘That’s going to help him out someday when he can control that. That competitive drive, it’s hard to teach. But he’s got it.’”
Kory maintains that Daniel might have lost some of those showdowns in the backyard, but he wasn’t picked on any more than most little brothers are, and there was definitely a reason for that.
“It was hard to beat up on him because he was pretty tough himself,” Kory said. “He’d come back at them pretty good. They learned early that they couldn’t do much to him. Plus, with him being the baby, if anything did happen, he’d always get the attention of mom and dad.”
Those backyard battles, it turns out, also sharpened another aspect of the youngest son’s skill set.
“He had the speed the other boys didn’t have,” Kory said. “You could see it when they played soccer — he was always a good defender. If anybody got behind him, he’d just run them down. That was part of his competitive nature.”
Sorensen rode those strengths all the way to a football scholarship to BYU, where he was a three-year starter who racked up 65 tackles, two interceptions and 12 pass breakups as a senior in 2013.
He’d come into his own as an athlete, finally, and after watching his older brother, Brad, go through the NFL Draft process in 2013 — the former Southern Utah quarterback was a seventh-round selection by the Chargers last season — Daniel was prepared for what it entailed.
“For everyone that goes into the draft, their mind-set is they’re going to get drafted,” Daniel said. “You kind of want to believe it, buy into it.”
Only once the draft came in May, pick after pick went by and Daniel’s name wasn’t called. His parents were back home in Grand Terrace, Calif., watching while Daniel did the same in Utah, and they knew — as only parents can — how their youngest was taking it.
“We were pretty confident Danny was going to get drafted,” Kory said. “People who were with him said instead of him getting frustrated, he just got mad. Saying ‘Why aren’t they choosing me? They say they want me.’”
But in retrospect, Sorensen’s draft-day misery may have turned out to be a blessing.
Several teams called about Sorensen after the draft, trying to get him to sign. But only one head coach — the Chiefs’ Andy Reid — picked up the phone and called him personally.
“None of the other coaches called,” Kory said. “He felt they really wanted him.”
It has turned out to be a good decision. The Chiefs let last year’s starter at free safety, Kendrick Lewis, and backup Quintin Demps depart via free agency, instead choosing to promote Husain Abdullah to a starting position.
This, plus a season-ending injury to 2013 fifth-rounder Sanders Commings — who was considered to be an emerging ballhawk — opened the door for Sorensen to log some meaningful playing time in training camp.
By all accounts, Sorensen has taken full advantage, thanks to his speed, resiliency and aggressiveness.
“He’s come up and done a really nice job,” Sutton said. “He’s been a very physical player in the box. There was a crack early in the game (Saturday) and he came up did a good job setting there with the crack block.
“He’s the kind of guy … you’ve watched him improve in practice a lot.”
So much so that Sorensen, barring a late decline or another roster move, figures to have a hold on the job as the top backup at safety behind Berry and Abdullah. If that is indeed the case, that will put the youngest Sorensen brother in a position to become the first of the group to play in a regular-season NFL game — perhaps ahead of even Brad, the draft pick.
“They probably still think they can take me and beat up on me,” Daniel said.
But whether they could or not, Kory and Roxann left Kansas City on Monday about as comfortable as they could be with the situation their son is in.
In fact, when they were driving around Sunday, checking out some of the sights, Daniel told them something that stuck with them.
“I don’t think he could have gone any other place, and that’s what he says,” Kory said. “He said that he was glad he didn’t get drafted anyplace else.”
Perhaps that’s appropriate. Sorensen will surely have his bumps and bruises early in his NFL career, much like he did at home as a youth.
But Kory had a sense back then that things would turn out all right for his son, and he has the same hopeful feeling now.
“Coach Reid says you come in here as players and end up as family,” Kory said. “It felt like he was at home now, and that’s what it sounded like, to me.”